Vail at the Crossroads

The three tourists stare at the sculpture in front of a fur boutique advertising Black Diamond female mink for "only $3,488." A life-sized bronze of a young woman holding a sun hat and flowers, the piece has a classical vibe -- but the woman's metal dress is dyed a bright, cartoony blue.

"Like everything else in Vail, it's probably symbolic," one tourist explains to her companions. "Of what, I have no idea."

They continue on their way, laughing at the statue, at the street, at the weirdness of strolling through a faux Austrian village in the middle of the American West, in a town that didn't even exist until 1962, when a bunch of enterprising World War II vets got a kooky idea to build a little piece of Bavaria in their own back yard. The trio of tourists amble over the cobbled side streets, passing Gore Creek and the much-photographed Covered Bridge. They ignore a tired-looking complex languishing next to the Vail Village parking structure -- but more than the standard, stunning postcard shots, Crossroads has come to symbolize Vail. This building stands at the heart of the most contentious and extraordinary redevelopment battle the town has ever seen.

Over the past two years, Peter Knobel's proposal to tear down and rebuild the property has inspired numerous agonizing public hearings, accusations of political skullduggery and the ousting of two Vail Town Council members. And last month, just when Knobel thought he had the project in the bag, his opponents engineered a mid-summer vote on the matter, when the public could decide to cut the development -- and the developer -- down to size permanently.

Crossroads not only stands at one of the town's most prominent intersections, it's a convergence point for wealth, power and mountain-sized egos, for small-town politics with big-city politicking. The official arguments may focus on topics like height and zoning, but citizens on both sides of the debate see the struggle as more epic, as a fight between Vail's old-time founders and its younger newcomers for what the town is and what it should become. Emotions are high, and the stakes are huge. Because despite its theme-park attributes, Vail is a real place, with real residents who live and work here, who are born and die here, and who love and hate each others' guts -- all within town limits.

Like the facades of many of Vail's early buildings, Crossroads is faded and cracked after decades of exposure to sunlight and snow. Built in 1969 on the East Meadow Drive corridor, the 60,000-square-foot, horseshoe-shaped complex wraps around a parking lot with three stories of condos sitting above a ground floor of retail. The two biggest tenants -- Clark's Market and the Crossroads Cinema -- both pulled out last month, citing slow business and deteriorating facilities.

Above the local-friendly Art's Bar and Grill is a once-empty space where Peter Knobel sits, slouching coolly in a hardwood chair, checking text messages on a cell phone that occasionally buzzes with a Spice Girls-esque ring tone. This is the leasing office and showroom for his project, dubbed Solaris, which Knobel hopes will be the dawn of a new age not just for Vail Village, but the entire town. "Like the rays of the sun, Solaris will touch and be enjoyed by everyone," Knobel wrote in a syrupy op-ed published in the Vail Daily on March 21, the same day he finally won approval from the town council. On the walls around him are colorful drawings and architectural schematics detailing 600,000 square feet of luxury condos, restaurants and shops. The plans include a ten-lane bowling alley, a three-screen movie theater, a Dave & Buster's-style arcade and an underground parking garage with room for 338 cars.

Across the room, Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi examines diagrams for Solaris, which has the same general shape as Crossroads but will be six times larger. Instead of a surface-level parking lot, Solaris cradles a 30,000-square-foot public plaza that will feature a free ice rink.

"Four to five thousand people could be in that space," explains Craig Cohn, Knobel's director of leasing and his right-hand man. "The retail could still operate around it."

Today, G. Love is playing a concert in Gerald Ford Park, three-quarters of a mile outside of town. "In a snowy field, it'll be half mud," Cohn points out, urging Menconi to imagine the Street Beat concert series set in the new Solaris complex instead. "When this public plaza exists, there is no snow, because the pavers are heated, the sound's already set up, there are restaurants and bars for people to come in and out of, and it will work here in the middle of town! And when it's over, 5,000 people will then disperse through town at 7:30 at night."